Master Class Lecture on Fiction 1: On Plot and Character

Master Class Lecture Series for Lit 13: Introduction to Fiction, Second Semester, SY 2016-17, Ateneo de Manila University

Cover of Aida River Ford: Collected Works (DLSU Publishing House), where the story “Love in the Cornhusks” may be read.

We begin by first attempting to understand what Fiction is all about. Admittedly, we all enter this class already having some notions of what it is based on previous experiences or engagements with Fiction. Thus we may ask: what have we read that constitute/s what we know of Fiction? We may, each of us, have various amounts of readings done in the past, and surely, some of these might be a peg of sort in the way we understand Fiction: (1) Fiction is basically a sustained telling or unfolding of an event; (2) Fiction is a worlding, that is, a creation of another reality which may be similar to or different from our lived reality, and because of this, proposes some form of comparison, examination, or rumination; (3) Fiction is the work of imagination. Allow me to elaborate. All of these are true, as Fiction is indeed, a literary act, a moment of literature, where language is utilized to craft an experience, again and again, in order to fulfill a story’s promise: that it would end, that despite the ordinariness or precariousness of a hero’s journey (as stories are basically about heroes we call people, and vice versa) there is a commencement to it all, a revelation, an epiphany, a completion. The thought of the finality of the story is always worth the reading. It is a sustained telling or unfolding of an event because its narration has to properly move action towards what we all know as closure. From the beginning of time, we have also been sustained by narratives as it encapsulated our personal and collective stories. It is also a worlding, a participation in creation, since writers of fiction, basically, play god and create universes and people them with characters worth scrutinizing. Characters are like us, human beings, and are complex composites of (personal and collective) history, motivations, and behavior. Both world and people in fiction compel readers to slow down and look closely—the devil is in the details, after all, and everything in the story is composed to mean. Lastly, it is also a work of imagination, and I suppose not the type of creative imagination we are being asked to undertake in the public sphere by the powers that be. It is imagined, but it is not fake—this distinction must be clearly made. Fakery is meant to confuse, deceive, and distract, whereas fiction, as a noble art, intends to help imagine the discovery of truth. It means to bring us closer to it, despite its defamiliarizing operation. The story you’re reading might be unfamiliar to you and many ways, but it familiarizes you with things you share with the characters, like experiences of success or failure. Lastly, when we talk of “imagination” here, we talk about the imagination of the writer, who worlded the story, and the imagination of the reader, who participates in the same worlding. The text is only completed upon reading, and what it reveals—the story’s outcome/ending or its insight to experience, for instance—only unfolds when a reader finally engages it, and in a way, makes it happen. Because Fiction is Literature, and literature operates as a language of suggestion, as a language of implication, there is always another takeaway in reading stories, aside from enjoying the narrative; it is, after all, and in another level, suggesting something about life, then and now, and basically about all sorts of human experiences. Add to “human experiences” the word “significant,” and you will again be reminded that stories compose the most significant of our stories as human beings because we always want to wonder and remember. Do you want to traverse another reality, to a setting kinder to existence? Read a story. Do you want to remember what seems to be deliberately forgotten, erased from collective memory? Read a story. Stories enable us to do these, and they also provide a chance for us to pin down certainty, which is usually wishful thinking everyday, while we travel worlds, other or otherwise, or contemplate on our lives which always comes to us unrehearsed. Closure is only possible in fiction. Fiction, no matter how tedious or cumbersome some find it, is a gift that consoles through and through. And how? Let me illustrate by talking about the main concepts for the day.

Fakery is meant to confuse, deceive, and distract, whereas fiction, as a noble art, intends to help imagine the discovery of truth.

Life is generally boring, and I’m not the first person who said this. It comes to us as a series of disparate events that only cohere and run in a particular direction because, by and large, we see it as governed by what we call time. It might be good to recall in this discussion another word related to it, chronology, which is defined by the New Oxford Dictionary as “the arrangement of events and dates in the order of their occurrence.” In Greek, the word “khronos” denotes “time, a defined time, a lifetime, a season, a while,” as it is also the name of the Titan that personifies time. We understand life based on the way it could be encapsulated chronologically, that is through time. At its most basic, we can imagine chronology by looking at a day’s worth of living through a watch, or a year’s speeding by way of a calendar. An hour, a day, a week, and a month, come one right after the other, putting some semblance of order, no matter how quotidian our lives have become. Imagine life where everything is only to be understood in this kind of linearity. Humans however were basically not programmed for the tedium of this sequential order, and proof of this is our undying appetite for stories, which bring us all sorts of conflict. Stories almost always provide a means to play with time, which in a strictly sequential fashion may not be able to articulate one other important keyword in the discussion of fiction: action. Action may simply be described for what it is, which is a thing done, or an act, but in fiction however, it is the process of an undertaking that sits in an imagined timeframe and awaits for some form of achievement or revelation. Life and experience are just too much to contain in our heads, much so narrate, which brings us to chronology’s other facet of meaning, its being a chronicle, a setting down of the sequence of events. We must have invented fiction in light of our incapacity to coherently hold in our heads all our possible stories, to set against the monotony and automatized chronology of our lives. A kind of composition had to be learned in order to do this, a careful selection of action that would constitute the event of the story, which, it may be said, leads to the development of forms of written storytelling like the short story. The short story, particularly the conventional one, lends very easily to compactness and sublimation as it examines one dramatic unfolding or present, and makes it readable in “one sitting,” as Edgar Allan Poe once put it in his Philosophy of Composition. In the Poetics of Aristotle, a tragedy, a story of a hero’s downfall deemed “complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude” is considered whole, coherent as we have been saying, when it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This is what Aristotle calls the “proper structure of Plot,” which in this instance was applied to drama. If we think about it, all manner of narration requires this “proper structure,” and this explains why we also see Plot as a fictional element. As they are composed, stories begin by introducing people in particular places and situations, develop dilemma that erupt in the middle, and close by way of revelations.

The short story, particularly the conventional one, lends very easily to compactness and sublimation as it examines one dramatic unfolding or present, and makes it readable in “one sitting,” as Edgar Allan Poe once put it.

Plot was made more familiar to us by that very peculiar triangular graph we usually call the Freytag Structure or Pyramid, attributed to the German novelist and playwrit Gustav Freytag, who also analyzed Greek and Shakespearean drama. He evolved the Aristotelian three-part movement into five, which he took from the Roman critic Horace, and explained more specifically what works within these sections. The following are the parts of the plot: (1) Exposition, where the characters and their initial situations are located; (2) Rising Action, where the story heightens by way of specific stimuli and action on the part of the characters; (3) Climax, where the story makes a turn and transforms the characters; (4) Falling Action, where the revelation or outcome of the story is slowly being decided; and (5) Resolution or Denouement, where the knots of the story are untied and a conclusion is proposed to the story. Conventional stories usually follow this structure, which eventually became a point for reinvention as well [stories and storytelling really cannot be confined in conventions for long], but quite interestingly, this matter of convention has been giving us a glimpse of the mechanisms of narrative. We further understand the said mechanisms of the story by considering action’s fundamental basis: characters’ motivation and response. When it comes to action, Plot and Character are closely linked, as both are only realized when an imagined situation (plot) and human beings (character) are worlded, that is, put together. Even “character-less” stories, and there are some, actually have characters, only they have been rendered absent—as as they say, absence is also presence, but I’m getting way ahead of my story. For action to take place in a plot, human figures must be made to exist, and they must be given opportunities to determine their responses to crafted situations. In terms of writing, character is the inscription of both human action and humanity, as in every plot, we see not only the character’s capacity to do and behave, but also the entirety of that person, as he or she processes within him/herself what he/she will do, or how he/she will behave, according to presented contexts. In his book, The Art of Fiction, critic and novelist David Lodge wrote that “(c)haracter is arguably the most important single component of a novel,” and I also say the same for fiction in general. Characters are basically imbibed with one important fictional component that makes action possible: tension. It may be an internal tension (or what they call, the character versus him/herself), external (character versus society, the world, or the environment), or a combination of both; it may effect a transformation (and we normally call characters who change towards the end of the story as dynamic or round characters) or not (these meanwhile are called static or flat characters). They may be protagonists or antagonists, as we are wont to label them in teleseryes we secretly watch. Tension shapes a character and enables action, and tension creates conflict. Conflict is at the core of plot, as it propels action. The fiction writer and critic Robert Penn Warren bluntly said in his essay “Why We Read Fiction”: “(N)o conflict, no story.” In fiction, characters are challenged to face a problem. Plot provides a means for the human figure to dramatize action.

Tension shapes a character and enables action, and tension creates conflict. Conflict is at the core of plot, as it propels action.

Aida Rivera Ford in her younger years. Grabbed from the Compilation of Philippine Literature Blogspot Website

Allow me to illustrate what we have discussed through a reading of “Love in the Cornhusks” by Aida Rivera Ford of Davao. This is a story that conventionally follows the plot structure. The exposition shows the protagonist Constantina Tirol a.k.a. “Tinang” in her former master’s house. She drops by to invite her to be a madrina or godmother in the baptism of the baby she has brought along. There’s mention of another character, Amado, in the course of the conversation, which was suddenly cut off by the crying of her hungry baby. The action starts to rise when the letter left for her in the drugstore is mentioned. She begins to think about what it may contain, and thoughts about possible bad news pervaded her thoughts. It was apparently from Amado Galuran, the former tractor driver who is later revealed to be her former lover. It was described as “Tinang’s first love letter,” and from the time our muddied and exhausted protagonist decides to stopover a “corner of a field where cornhusks were scattered”, lay her baby there in the mean time, and read the letter, we were provided a portrait, not only of her past and abruptly-ended romance, but also the life choices she had elected for herself as a rural woman who had some education. “Tinang was intoxicated” with thoughts of the past, as she is, in the beginning already depicted as being weighed down by motherhood and life with her Bagobo husband Inggo, who had “two hectares of land”, and whom she looked down at first. An intimate encounter between Amado and Tinang has apparently ensued, carefully depicted by the omniscient narrator of the story: “He had not said much more to her, but one afternoon when she was bidden to take some bolts and tools to him in the field, a great excitement came over her. The shadows moved fitfully in the bamboo groves she passed and the cool November air edged into her nostrils sharply. He stood unmoving beside the tractor with tools and parts scattered on the ground around him. His eyes were a black glow as he watched her draw near. When she held out the bolts, he seized her wrist and said, “Come,” pulling her to the screen of trees beyond. She resisted but his arms were strong. He embraced her roughly and awkwardly, and she trembled and gasped and clung to him.” In the reading of this part of the story, we may have felt a little excitement as well as we waited with bated breath what will take place. This was very intense, but what was really making its intensity rise up? We will only find out in the next paragraph where Tinang discovers “(a) little green snake slither(ing) languidly into the tall grass a few yards from the kalamansi tree.” She remembered her child! The intimate time in the story may have been intense, but the escalation into the climax of the story, of Tinang’s being “bitten” by reality, was brought about, both by her crushed desire and basically, her guilt because we can easily infer that she is aware of the choices she made. She chose to be practical in life, taking the Bagobo for a husband despite initial ridicule, perhaps because she felt slighted with Amado’s sudden disappearance. The choice between two good men—a landed indigenous man and a clearly ambitions man—may have returned to make her re-examine that moment. This is the suggested falling action of the story. She happily gave herself to Amado, and in that moment or reading the letter had stoked old flames that never really died. She however is already married, and as to be revealed in the denouement, is also somewhat being weighed down by the morality of her nostalgia. In the story, Tinang was caught between the chance of a thought of an ideal, romantic life with Amado, and the reality of her choice to settle down with Inggo and be the mother of their children. The story resolved the conflict by suggesting the choice Tinang made after being bitten by reality and awakened from her momentary remembering: “With a shriek, she grabbed (the baby) wildly and hugged it close. The baby awoke from its sleep and cried lustily. Ave Maria Santissima. Do not punish me, she prayed, searching the baby’s skin for marks. Among the cornhusks, the letter fell unnoticed.” With the baby safe, who know who clearly got “bitten.” The dread said it all. The resolution was short and sweet: Tinang is aware (and was made aware again) of her choice and she stands by it—to have a family with this man, and stay where she is.

The choice between two good men—a landed indigenous man and a clearly ambitions man—may have returned to make her re-examine that moment.

As main character, Tinang emerged as a dynamic character transformed by an almost allusive moment—the snake and the tree easily reminds us of the garden myth, and how, in the Holy Bible, the event of the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil had revealed to Adam and Eve a fundamental truth about them: that they were naked, and thus embarrassing to be seen. Did Tinang discover something about herself in that moment under the tree? Yes. She was given a moment of reckoning, an opportunity to review her life choices. The story was very sympathetic to her, and treated her as a dignified woman despite her struggles. She was however, still human, and that moment or romantic rekindling made her see the other possibility of her life: life with Amado, “who could look at her and make her lower her eyes.” The letter made her remember “the young girl she was less than two years ago.” Clearly, she was not that young girl anymore, and she is aware of it. What’s very notable with this female character is her sharp self-awareness and agency as she was torn between her real loves in the cornhusks: her past (as exemplified by the lover Amado and his belatedly read letter) and her present (Inggo, her Bagobo husband, and her children). Her decisions in life may be shaped by her traditional and rural environment, but we see her here own up to her choices. The powerful figure of the “little green snake” fed into her being the value of her decisions, which we may surmise was very easy to discern for her. She grabbed the baby “wildly and hugged it close” and the letter fell “unnoticed”—a very telling reversal between the loves in the cornhusks. Decisions are continuously made by characters until the final period is placed, and in this story, we witnessed Tinang’s resolve, as a woman, wife, and mother, to choose the entirety of her present life, no matter how hard it had become. Did she have a closure? With both Amado and her decisions, yes. The narrative made sure it sustained the telling of this woman’s essential recognition, where an almost distant, rural world and time also existed. The figure of the Bagobo signals for us not only what we call “local color” but also the otherness we from the Manila-center normally associate with it. Our key details regarding the world brought forth by the story are the Bagobo references, as well as of Cotabato, where Amado probably still lives at the time of the reading of his letter. This world is the world of Mindanao, rich in indigenous culture but archipelagically othered, as it had been for long plagued by discord. Back in the days of the story, we already see how Bagobos from the Davao region are perceived: Tinang laughs at her husband-to-be Inggo in the beginning, perhaps surprised with his temerity. The perception seems to be unchanged if we actually look at this portion of the story, while Tinang, by way of the narration’s intrusion in her mind, juxtaposes the “comfortable world” she used to live in as domestic help in her Señora’s house: “…she sighed thinking of the long walk home through the mud, the baby’s legs straddled to her waist, and Inggo, her husband, waiting for her, his body stinking of tuba and sweat, squatting on the floor, clad only in his foul undergarments.” What image do we see here of the Bagobo, despite him being landed? Your protagonist however, is very self-conscious, as I have said, and she takes responsibility for her choices. In the end, the story also made us rethink about the way we relate with Mindanao, and how the malaise against its peoples—particularly the indigenous, and even the Muslim—is brought about by the self-righteousness and entitlement of the (Spanish) Christianized (Americanized) educated lowlanders. This is very observable in a clearly challenged Tinang, trying to cope with her new and clearly backward Bagobo life [perhaps in the hinterlands, as hinted at in the story], continuing to participate in Catholic rituals [remember that her Bagobito is to be baptized], and entertaining the possibility of a different life with the educated Amado, who writes her a letter in English [she is said to have “reached the sixth grade,” a product of the public education system put in place by the Americans]. I am mentioning the subtly placed comparison to help in understanding the “othered” Mindanao world [because it is different, unfamiliar, and underdeveloped, where the community’s snail mail were claimed through a town drugstore] called into being in the story.

There is, I think, no more debate as to the probability of the well-composed event of Tinang’s awakening. We have been prepared for the logic of her actions, as well as her momentary choice to reminisce; after all, life has been tough, and it is not far-fetched for our protagonist to take the chance to remember the uncomplicated world of her youth and love.

As a work of imagination, fiction provides enjoyment through believability. Believability compels us to suspend our disbelief, and fully engage in the plot of the story—in this case, the epiphany [the moment of enlightenment, understanding, internal revelation in a character] of a woman who was given a moment to review her decisions in life after claiming an unread love letter. Believability is an important virtue associated with another fictional concept, realism, which M.H. Abrams succinctly explains in this manner: “It is more useful to identify realism in terms of the intended effect on the reader: realistic fiction is written to give the effect that it represents life and the social world as it seems to the common reader, evoking the sense that its characters might in fact exist, and that such things might well happen.” We may say that believability is the “intended effect on the reader”, and fiction, as imagined in the mode of realism, aspires to evoke “the sense that its characters might in fact exist, and that such things might well happen.” There is, I think, no more debate as to the probability of the well-composed event of Tinang’s awakening. We have been prepared for the logic of her actions, as well as her momentary choice to reminisce; after all, life has been tough, and it is not far-fetched for our protagonist to take the chance to remember the uncomplicated world of her youth and love. In the scheme of things, however, it would have taken so many other possibilities to burst her bubble, but the writer elected the figure of the snake to bring her back to reality. In the rural environment, it is utterly probable, though of course, we could not deny the fact that it is deus ex machina, wrought by divine intervention. Does the figure of the snake compromise the believability, or the verisimilitude, the likeness to the truth of the story? The answer is of course, no. In the first place, we have already seen Tinang being aware of the weight of her decisions. She patiently carried her about-to-be-baptized child [and another one on the way] in a long, muddied walk from the hinterlands, bearing in mind her duties as a mother. We also saw that she was quite selfless as the first thing she thought about upon hearing about the letter was bad news from relatives: “A letter! Tinang’s heart beat violently. Somebody is dead. I know somebody is dead, she thought. She crossed herself and after thanking the Señora profusely, she hurried down.” There was mention of Amado, but it seemed to have not affected her that much at first. She was just busy with her child. She knew her priorities but was merely human. When she opened the letter, nostalgia simply surged and for a moment, she was swept away. Though not for long. The snake slithered as both symbol and impetus for her to pull herself out of her daydream because literally, the child laid down on the cornhusks was clearly in danger. “Ave Maria Santissima. Do not punish me, she prayed, searching the baby’s skin for marks. Among the cornhusks, the letter fell unnoticed.” Her awareness of what matters in her present life, as may be seen through her actions, made the story believable. It was an acute awakening, but a believable awakening nonetheless.

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